If you read no further, know this: there is no such thing as a safe tan. Indoor tanning is just as dangerous, if not more, than tanning outside in the sun. In fact, indoor tanning injures thousands of people each year badly enough to go to the emergency department. Indoor tanning can cause sun damage to your eyes that could lead to vision loss. Indoor tanning can also cause premature skin aging, including loss of elasticity, wrinkling, age spots, and changes in skin texture.
There are a lot of misconceptions about indoor tanning, so it’s important to know the following:
- Tanned skin is not healthy skin. That “healthy glow” from the tanning bed indicates damage to your skin. Whether tanning or burning, you are exposing yourself to harmful UV rays. In fact, every time you engage in indoor tanning, you increase your risk of melanoma. The truly healthy glow is your natural skin color.
- A base tan is not a safe tan. A tan is the body’s response to injury from UV rays. Skin cells respond to damage from UV rays by producing more pigment, which shows that damage has been done. A base tan only provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of about 3 or less, which does little to protect you from future UV exposure.
- Tanning indoors is not safer than tanning outside in the sun. Indoor tanning and tanning outside are both dangerous. Artificial UV rays from indoor tanning are typically much more intense than UV rays from the sun. The intensity of UV rays can vary depending of the age and type of light bulbs.
- Indoor tanning is not a safe way to get vitamin D. While vitamin D is important for bone health, studies showing links between vitamin D and other health conditions are inconsistent. Although it is important to get vitamin D, vitamin D, if needed, can be obtained safely through diet or supplements. (Vitamin D is found naturally in fatty fish, and is added to foods such as milk and some cereals. Read the labels to find out which foods have vitamin D added.) Tanning harms your skin, and the amount of UV you need to get enough vitamin D is difficult to measure, as it is different for every person.
Despite the clear dangers associated with indoor tanning, nearly 1 in 3 young white women ages 16-25 engage in indoor tanning each year. Among those who use indoor tanning, approximately half report 10 or more sessions per year. This is particularly concerning given the increased risk of skin cancer and artificial sun damage among younger and frequent users.
Tanning often begins during the adolescent years. Studies show kids are more likely to indoor tan if their parents allow it or if the parents indoor tan themselves. Research suggests that girls who start tanning with their mothers tend to begin tanning at an earlier age and are more likely to become regular, habitual tanners than girls who initially tanned alone or with a friend. Studies also suggest that parents aren’t very aware of the risks associated with indoor tanning. Given the potential for these behaviors to continue into adulthood, we have to reach likely tanners early to keep them from starting or help them to stop indoor tanning.
The evidence linking indoor tanning to an increased skin cancer artificial sun damage risk is clear. Indoor tanning is an unnecessary and easily avoidable source of UV exposure. Reducing indoor tanning is an important strategy for reducing the burden of skin cancer.